After nearly 30 years as an employment lawyer, I still remember the first time I spoke with a client who had been turned down for a job because of his criminal record. It was the late 1980s. I remember thinking that I didn’t know the first thing about how to help him. And I remember wondering how many other people might be facing barriers to employment because of criminal records.
Nearly three decades later, we now know that 1 in 3 Americans have some type of criminal record, which translates into nearly three million residents in Pennsylvania, where I practice. And it is well documented that having even a minor record—such as a misdemeanor, or even an arrest that never led to conviction—can serve as an intractable barrier to employment.
Meanwhile, the number of people with criminal records seeking help from the legal aid program where I work, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS), has grown exponentially. Today roughly 1,000 people with criminal records request CLS representation every year, comprising roughly two-thirds of our employment caseload.
As the White House commemorates National Reentry Week, civil legal services must be front and center as a vital tool to help people with criminal records get a fair shot at employment.
Helping people earn a clean slate
Record-clearing is at the heart of what CLS does to help people with criminal records, as it is the single most helpful tool to address the barriers associated with having a record. In addition to helping hundreds of clients get their records expunged each year, we conduct expungement clinics in the community to reach people who don’t—or can’t—make it into our offices. And one of my colleagues created “expungement generator” software that assembles expungement petitions from case information available online, allowing us to help many more individuals at once than if we had to enter the information one-by-one.
But no amount of clinics or special software could make it possible for us to help all the Philadelphians held back by criminal records, and we are forced to turn away far more people than we have the capacity to help. Some 82,000 petitions for expungement were filed in Pennsylvania last year alone. But that is the tip of the iceberg—so many more people qualify for, and need, expungements.
That’s why CLS is working with the Center for American Progress and the transpartisan U.S. Justice Action Network to pass first-in-the-nation legislation that would enable Pennsylvanians to earn a clean slate once they have remained crime-free for a set period of time. The Clean Slate Act, which was introduced by bipartisan legislators in the Pennsylvania legislature earlier this month, has the potential to transform record-clearing for untold numbers of Pennsylvanians who have no access to the legal process.
Protection from employment discrimination
While a clean slate is the surest pathway for people with criminal records to move on with their lives, protections against employment discrimination are critical for those who cannot clear their records. Although people with criminal records are not a protected class, employment discrimination on the basis of a criminal record has for years been held a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That’s because communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) plays an important role in enforcing Title VII. But without lawyers to file complaints on behalf of people whose rights have been violated, Title VII protections are theoretical at best. Thus, filing race discrimination claims with the EEOC and challenging employers who have turned down our clients for jobs due to criminal records is another key part of CLS’ work.
We’ve also seen—and worked to rectify—gaps in existing laws and policies around hiring discrimination. After many years of advocacy by CLS and others, the EEOC issued a new criminal records policy four years ago, making clear that blanket policies excluding people with records are illegal. It also set forth criteria—such as the nature and length of time since the offense—that must be considered by employers. Similarly, at the local level, working with a broad coalition of partners, CLS helped develop and pass the “fair chance hiring” law enacted in Philadelphia last year.
Another employment barrier that many of our clients face stems from overly broad laws prohibiting employers from hiring people with criminal records. For example, in 1997, Pennsylvania enacted a law prohibiting long-term health care facilities from employing people convicted of crimes as minor as library book theft at any point in their lifetimes, no matter how clearly they had been rehabilitated. CLS filed suit challenging these restrictions, and in December of last year, the law was struck down for violating Pennsylvania’s state constitution.
Improving accuracy in background checks
Another major problem people with criminal records face is erroneous background checks—particularly when they are prepared by commercial screeners, a cottage industry that’s grown dramatically over the last 20 years. Common errors include reporting expunged cases or providing the wrong grade of an offense (such as stating that a misdemeanor was a felony). Sometimes screeners even report cases that didn’t involve the person who is being screened.
In addition to helping our clients correct faulty reports, CLS frequently brings class action lawsuits under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, seeking to fix systemic problems and require companies to ensure accuracy in their background checks.
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Over the years, my CLS colleagues and I have developed a practice that helps at least some people who have paid their dues move on and make their way out of poverty. This work has been enormously gratifying. I have never seen clients more overjoyed—or relieved—than when they finally get an expungement, or when the job they’ve desperately needed comes through.
The community of legal aid and public interest lawyers doing this type of work around the country has grown tremendously over the nearly 30 years since I met my first client who’d been turned away from a job because of his record. Civil legal services organizations like mine have come to play a central role in making successful reentry possible for countless people with criminal records seeking to move on with their lives. As we commemorate National Reentry Week, expanding the capacity of civil legal services to help the millions of Americans struggling to enter or reenter the workforce will be key to addressing what I believe is the civil rights issue of our generation.